Carl Sagan on Science and Religion

In the book The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan, editor Ann Druyan wrote the following about Carl Sagan framing the domains and roles of religion and science. I liked this so much I decided to stick it here lest it should forget it.

He believed that the little we know about nature suggests that we know even less about God. We had only managed to get an inkling of the grandeur of the cosmos and its exquisite laws that guide the evolution of trillions if not infinite numbers of worlds. This newly acquired vision made the God who created the World seem hopelessly local and dated, bound to transparently human misperceptions and conceits of the past.

This was no glib assertion on his part. He avidly studied the wold’s religions, both living and defunct, with the same hunger for learning that he brought to scientific subjects. He was enchanted by their poetry and history. When he debated religious leaders, he frequently surprised them with his ability to out-quote the sacred texts. Some of these debates led to long standing friendships and alliances for the protection of life. However, he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe.

His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed. Sciences permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe that it revealed. The methodology of science with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good skeptic.

The idea that scientific method should be applied to the deepest of questions is frequently described as “scientism.” This charge is made by those who hold that religious beliefs should be off-limits to scientific scrutiny — that beliefs (convictions without evidence that can be tested) are a sufficient way of knowing. Carl understood this feeling, but insisted with Bertrand Russel that “what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out, which is the exact opposite.”

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